School district meshes varied approaches

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Mesa County School District 51 strives to adapt to individual student needs to help ensure each student reaches his or her potential for learning and becomes a productive worker after school. At the same time, federal and state educational organizations increase the pressure to meet specified standards — sort of a return to the days when students knew the academic goals they were expected to reach.

The former approach aligns with national efforts to make sure no child is left behind in the learning process. The latter approach comes partly as a reaction to the days when public schools were accused of working too hard to build student confidence and not as hard at helping them develop competitive skills.

Meanwhile, such counties as Japan and Germany tout student performance higher than that in the United States. Foreign student performance in math, science, reading and writing tests generally exceeds that in the U.S.

In 1997, the Colorado Board of Education developed the Colorado Student Assessment Program and standardized tests to try to ensure students achieve competence in the core areas required for college and the workplace. Ten years later, the board adopted new content standards for science. More recently, the nation has focused on upgrading STEM curricula — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. The feds recently told Colorado educators that the state’s new math and science standards weren’t as high as they should be. The standards were under review as of press time.

Steve Shultz

In Mesa County School District 51, administrators have spent two years working to upgrade math and language standards and related curricula. Superintendent Steve Schultz believes changes will be implemented relatively quickly. “It won’t take 10 years,” Schultz said, adding that some changes will be instant and others will occur over a couple of years.

Partly because educators are trying to do more for more students and help them all succeed, Schultz said schools need help. “I believe that’s a community effort,” he said, adding there could be an announcement about a community wide initiative early in the new school year.

To focus on both individual attention and rigid standards, Schultz said schools probably need to change in many ways. “We’re committed long-term to increase learning time — not just in number of days, but in other ways.”

Those could include more individualized programs before and after the traditional school day. Programs could be geared to both slow learners and advanced students.

Instructors in such programs face more than the challenge of setting high standards. They also need to motivate students to reach for those goals if the system is to succeed as intended.

“In terms of motivation, there are lots of initiatives,” Schultz said. He still sees teamwork as a means to motivate. “Part of it is the school, part is the parents and part is the community.”

While reaching for higher standards, the district also faces the reality that 20 percent to 25 percent of high school freshman fail to earn diplomas. Schultz said the statistic can be misleading because a student who moves away from a district can be counted as a non-graduate.

He also noted that high-performing schools in some countries attract the best students, while public schools in the U.S. must accept all applicants.

Regardless, Schultz and other educators said there are too many people without high school diplomas at a time in which advanced education is almost required to enjoy a successful career.

One experiment that could keep young students more engaged in school is the administration of a test from the American College Testing program, which administers college entrance exams. New tests designed for 13- and 14-year-olds give students an earlier idea of where they stand academically and what career path might best suit them. In past decades, young students pursued a broad-based education and weren’t encouraged to consider a career choice until they were 18 years old or even older. The new approach is being used at the Fruita 8/9 school and at Central High School.

“Jobs for our kids are going to be highly technical,” Schultz said. “We don’t have to make them go to college, but they need education beyond high school.”

Such education could include training at a technical school as well as at a community college or four-year institution.

Some students begin their post-high school education while still in high school. Local students earn college credit by taking courses at Mesa State College while they’re still working on a high school diploma. The experience gives them a jump on their college education while also making them feel comfortable about college life before they make the full leap.

“One of the strengths is how we partner with Mesa State,” Schultz said.

One potential downside of all the learning options is that it can be difficult for students to focus on what they can reasonably digest before leaving high school. Schultz said if today’s student learned everything she was expected to learn in this age, she would be 21 years old at graduation.

But Schultz sees more up sides than down to the changes in classrooms in Mesa County. “I believe in the system and in this community. The vast majority of our employees are dedicated to the success of the students.”